For the person who fears getting up on stage at all, performing without a script—with only your wits and your fellow actors to guide you—probably seems terrifying.
For Stephanie Brown C’92, it only seems natural.
A veteran of community theater and playwriting camps in her youth, Brown joined the campus improv comedy group, Without a Net, when she first arrived at Penn. After graduation, she toyed with the idea of pursuing the arts full-time and took jobs, first in her native Minneapolis and then in New York, but eventually landed back in Philly.
Since her return, Brown, 35, has continued to tickle the funny bones of audiences with improvisational short-form comedy as a founding member of the seven-member troupe, Elaschtick. Their regular gig is at The Point coffee house in Bryn Mawr, on the last Sunday of the month (except March). Locally, they’ll be letting the improv fly on March 18 at The Trocadero Balcony, 1003 Arch Street, at 7:30 p.m.
“Nothing really feels as great as connecting with an audience with humor,” says Brown. “You really feel like you’re communicating and you have an understanding with someone if you’re sharing a joke with them or if they get it. You really feel a connection.”
Q. How did you get hooked up with Elaschtick?
A. Another offshoot of Without A Net was something called Polywumpus. I got involved with that group when I returned to Philadelphia. When they disbanded, some of us thought, “Heck, why should this be the end of all of our fun? Maybe we should form another group.” I say that we rose from the ashes like a phoenix.
Q. Is there any preparation you do before you go onstage?
A. improvisation we do at Elaschtick is called short-form. Basically, we play games that you might see on “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” There’s a lot of short, set structures, with a built-in premise.
Some of the improv snobs don’t much care for that. Most sane people really don’t care. It’s not like old school jazz or something like that. Even within that, you have room to be creative and apply your own style. You have to know the rules of the game. You can fake your way through a lot of stuff, but a game with no rules is no fun. Comedy is about patterns and breaking patterns. If there’s nothing to break, then nobody notices anything and then it’s just a bunch of nonsense.
Each of us in the group has a different style. Some people are a little more cerebral; some are a little more physical.
Q. How would you classify yourself?
A. I don’t really know how to classify my sense of humor. Sometimes I do things that are, I guess you would call them, witty. Other times I’m just a goofball.
Q. Does the audience participate at all?
A. We do invite people to call out suggestions, which we use as the inspiration for scenes. Sometimes we call audience members up on stage to participate. One thing we have is a giant, crazy, Vegas-style glitter wheel with all our games on it and I’ll ask the audience member to spin the wheel and pick the next game.
Q. Do you ever freeze?
A. Sure, that happens. The best of us just fake it and cover it up. You find things to do to get yourself back on track. It helps to do something physical or have a strong activity that motivates your actions. Also, we really rely a lot on each other to get out of jams.
Q. Where do you see yourself and the group going?
A. Well, one thing that Rick Horner, our director, is excited about is what he sees as a burgeoning Philly improv scene. In addition to ComedySportz, which has kind of ruled the roost for a while and is chock-full of Penn alums . . . there’s The Rare Bird Show. They’re really fantastic. They do the long-form thing. There’s something called The Kabal and this new group called the Gurus of Guffaw. A bunch of these people are trying to create this improv festival in the near future so that all these groups can get together so their audiences know where to find us.
[We don’t] approach another improv group as competition, but think about it in terms of ‘Oh, there’s an abundance of people.’ Frankly, the biggest audience for improv is other improvisers. We’re only helping each other.
Q. It’s so interesting you do this unscripted work, considering you received a fellowship for playwriting.
A. If you’re a writer you’re plotting ahead. If you try to plot ahead as an improviser, you’re going to get burned. So, a lot of really creative people who try to do improv, who have this really fantastic idea that they see three paces away … the other people have no way of knowing that, and when you push it, it all falls apart.
Q. Was there any comedian you admired growing up?
A. When I was a kid, I loved “SCTV.” I didn’t understand half the references! Of course, “Saturday Night Live.” Remember that show, “The Great Space Coaster?” I liked that show. People can come to the show and see if they can see the influence of “The Great Space Coaster.”
Also, Eddie Murphy. The weird thing about Eddie Murphy was, I grew up in this predominantly white place—the whitest place in the world, really—and in junior high everyone was crazy for Eddie Murphy. All these Minnesota kids tried to do Eddie Murphy in between classes. That sort of taught me not to do that. [laughing)]
Improv sort of came out of this middle class, [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May kind of a thing [that was] mostly not black. And now, I think more people of different groups are appreciating it and getting into it. That’s another reason I got into improv—there’s no script, there’s no real reason to limit the casting. It’s more about me or the other person.
Originally published on March 17, 2005